Short, tart and to the point – this 28 minute recording of the songs from a one-act show provides a record (pardon the pun) for future reference, but I for one am not likely to refer back to it very often. It is highly entertaining the first few times you hear it. However, since the songs serve the purpose of a satire, they are essentially jokes, and most jokes are much funnier the first time you hear them than they are on repeated listening.
The show is a blast in the face, a high tension full-out assault on the very notion of populism and the idea that an unrestrained democracy can possibly be in the public interest when the public can’t maintain its interest in political questions over a sustained period.
“This is the age of Jackson” the song says. However, the topic here is really “the age of Sarah Palin” or any of the other figures dominating our air waves, our digital social networks and the news programs composed of talking heads and sound bites.
Let’s pause here for a history lesson:
Andrew Jackson (1767 – 1845) – Founder of the modern Democratic Party. Opponent of the Bank of the United States. Vehement proponent of removing Native Americans from settled portions of the United States. Leader of American troops in the Battle of New Orleans. Would have been the 6th President of the United States after winning the popular vote in 1824 but lost it when the lack of a majority in the electoral college sent the election to the House of Representatives which gave the office to John Quincy Adams. Came back to beat Adams in 1828 and became the 7th President of the United States.
You should not cite this on a final exam in a history class. This is a satire of social commentary after all, and exaggeration and anachronism are the principal tools being used. But, to be intellectually honest, the humor has to take off from an accurate view of reality and then soar to comedic heights. It is clear from the show that author/director Alex Timbers and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman used a well accepted view of Andrew Jackson’s public and private record as the source of the events and attitudes to be ridiculed. Their use of that historical record to comment in satirical form on both the history of the time and the foibles of our own time is not spoiled by getting the basics wrong.
Jackson’s personal history, his rise to prominence and his electoral successes and failures are accurately summarized even if the sketch is compressed out of dramatic and comedic necessity. All of the positions Jackson is portrayed as taking are consistent with his own record. The elections of 1824 and 1828 are accurately reflected as the basis for ridicule. The encapsulation of “The Corrupt Bargain” includes very funny and quickly effective sketches of John Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren.
Historical political positions are used to target modern movements and the humor is at times brutal. Take the lines from the opening song “Populism Yea Yea”:
We’ll take the land back from the Indians
We’ll take the land back from the French and Spanish
And other people in other European countries
And other countries too
And also other places
I’m pretty sure its our land anyway.
Ouch! – This the level of expertise of the people to be entrusted with public policy? As the lyric for “The Corrupt Bargain” asks: “Do you really want the American people running their own country?” Clearly, the authors are grateful for the checks, balances and constraints of a constitutional republic with a strong bill of rights. They direct their sharpest barbs toward the very concept of a popular democracy, especially in a marvelous sequence that takes “the people” from delight over having a government that “listens” to them to annoyance at being asked to have opinions!
Be aware that the score is widely described as Emo Rock, that distinctive blend of rock that emerged in Washington DC in the 1980s which puts an emphasis on two things that make it effective for musical theater: melody and vocal clarity. Unlike other branches of rock’s family tree, Emo can get under your skin from its melodic line and not just its rhythmic drive. Also – glory be – you can understand the lyrics! Those lyrics may not be up to a standard of a Sondheim, Hammerstein or Gilbert, but they make their point through intelligent expression. Likewise, the music isn’t Rodgers, Gershwin or Sullivan, but it does follow a melodic line. There are even a few motifs that pull different scenes or songs together – “I’m Not That Guy” morphs both musically and lyrically into the later “I’m So That Guy.” Complex and sophisticated? No. Contemporary and effective? Yes.
The music and lyrics are the work of Michael Friedman. This isn’t exactly his Broadway debut but it is his first score on “the great white way.” Previously he served as the musical consultant to Moisés Kaufman’s play with music about Beethoven, 33 Variations and as dramaturg for the recent revival of A Raisin the Sun. Could any two shows possibly have been more different from this one?
The book for the musical is by Alex Timbers who also directed the production first at the Public Theatre and then on Broadway. This cast recording was made during the run at the Public. Nine of the 14 cast members on Broadway appear on the recording including Benjamin Walker who has received some very positive notices for his starring role as Andrew Jackson. The strengths of his performance are evident on the recording.
Record producers Kurt Deutsch and Dean Sharenow decided to make this a musical album. Even though they could have used more space on the disc and recorded full scenes, or even an abridged version of the show, they confined it to just songs. When songs were used in longer scenes the non-musical material was stripped out. For example, in the show the bitingly painful telling of the forcing of Native Americans onto “The Trail of Tears” features multiple scenes performed between stanzas of the song “Ten Little Indians.” On the recording, the song is not interrupted, running less than two and a half minutes. This is, as a result, one of the shortest original cast albums in modern memory.